By Peter Baker
By the second inauguration in 1997, everything had changed. Senior Secret Service officials stopped by the White House one day to go over plans for the event, ready for a struggle over how exposed President Clinton would want to be as he made his way down Pennsylvania Avenue. To their surprise, Clinton told them to close their thick briefing books. He would get out of the limousine at whatever spot they chose to walk the rest of the parade route.
"You've never embarrassed me," he told them, according to people familiar with the meeting. "I'll do what you want."
The evolution of the Clintons' relationship with the agents who guard them is typical at the White House, where many presidents have chafed at the constant, hovering presence of their protectors, and now is at the heart of an unprecedented drama born of the Monica S. Lewinsky investigation.
For the first time since the Secret Service began guarding presidents in a full-time, comprehensive way in 1901, active officers and agents have begun testifying in a criminal investigation of the very commander-in-chief they are trained to save even if it means intercepting a bullet.
Will Clinton or his successors keep a distance from their guards to protect their privacy? That was the fear the Secret Service raised as it resisted for six months disclosing his confidences to independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr. Without intimate proximity to the president, literally holding his hips as he shakes hands along a rope-line, agents argue they could not execute their "cover and evacuate" strategy in a crisis that is, immediately push him out of the way, then get him into a nearby car and away from danger in seconds.
But the Clinton experience offers contradictory evidence. The deep distrust he and his wife brought from Arkansas more than five years ago showed how difficult it always has been for agents to win the confidence of those they protect. Yet as this dispute has evolved in recent months, Clinton, while sympathetic with the agency's argument, has not pushed his agents away, according to aides.
"The president is comfortable with the detail he has and he's got a lot of respect for them and he's had very good relationships with the people who've been the head of his detail, including Larry," said White House press secretary Michael McCurry, referring to Larry L. Cockell, the lead agent subpoenaed by Starr. "And I think he's worked well with them."
Asked if Clinton had ever asked agents to stand aside so he could speak without being overheard, McCurry said, "Not that I'm aware of. One of the reasons why they do their job effectively is that you just take them for granted that they're there."
It has taken some time to get to that point. When they first arrived, some in the Clinton circle were put off by agents trained not to speak, a far cry from Arkansas where people are expected to say a polite, "Good morning" and so on. By contrast, agents were said to have liked President George Bush better because he treated them more graciously.
Today Clinton appears perfectly comfortable surrounded by the stoic men and women talking into their sleeves, adjusting their earpieces and reporting every movement of "Eagle," the president's codename. Reports of friction have all but disappeared and Clinton often can be seen genially chatting with Cockell or other top agents.
Cockell, 47, took over the prestigious White House detail in February after 17 years in the Secret Service. Tall and lean, he was born in St. Louis, went to St. Louis University and worked 8½ years for the city police force, part of it as a homicide detective, before joining the Secret Service in 1981. In addition to criminal investigative work in St. Louis and San Francisco, Cockell served four years on President Ronald Reagan's security detail and worked on the Bush transition. He returned to the White House in June 1996 and rose to deputy special agent in charge of the presidential protective division the next January as the second term began.
Cockell and other plainclothes agents form the phalanx of security that accompanies Clinton everywhere he goes. In addition, uniformed officers supplement security, generally protecting the White House complex and running metal detectors over guests to presidential events, though some get close to the president while guarding the Oval Office or by donning civilian clothes on some trips.
With his consent, Cockell was relieved of his assignment Thursday pending resolution of his testimony before the Starr grand jury, but his cherished anonymity has been destroyed by countless pictures on television and in the newspapers. Colleagues worry his high profile will make it difficult for him to return to the White House, or worse, might make him a target of crazed individuals.
"Larry's a good guy," said McCurry. "We don't like to see anyone's career impacted for questionable reasons."
Cockell came to prominence last week even as judges all the way up to Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist ruled there was no excuse for him or his colleagues not to testify. In addition to Cockell, six uniformed officers and a retired plainclothes agent were subpoenaed last week. Two of the officers, Gary J. Byrne and John Muskett, and the retiree, Robert Ferguson, testified Friday.
It remains unknown what Cockell could tell the grand jury when he returns to the federal courthouse Tuesday. Although he did not work at the White House while Lewinsky was there as an intern and clerk, he may have seen her during her frequent visits back after her transfer to the Pentagon or he may have been told by subordinates about any contacts with the president.
Lawyers representing Secret Service personnel have said the agents did not witness any romantic encounters, but Starr said in court papers that he believes they have crucial information. One retired uniformed officer already has testified that Clinton and Lewinsky spent 40 minutes together in the Oval Office in the fall of 1995, although the president said under oath in the Paula Jones civil lawsuit that "I have no specific recollection" of being alone in a room with her, though he had a "general memory" of her bringing him things to sign.
Clinton allies maintain Starr is penetrating the veil of Secret Service confidentiality without any reason to believe agents and officers can help and in the process may dangerously expose security techniques. But Starr supporters scoff at the complaint, noting that Chief U.S. District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson will be available to rein in questioning that strays off target. "It's impossible for Judge Starr to engage in a fishing expedition when the judge controls the rod and reel," said Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University law professor who filed a legal brief backing Starr's right to subpoena the Secret Service.
Yet even though he has won their testimony, Starr may yet find some Secret Service personnel unhelpful in recalling conversations where they may have been present. Agents and officers say they often tune out what is being said because they are focused on scanning crowds or planning movements.
Prosecutors may want to know, "'How could you not hear what the conversation is if you were standing right there?'" said Michael T. Leibig, an attorney representing two uniformed officers subpoenaed by Starr, "and the answer is, 'Well, I'm ordered not to pay attention.'"
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company